Hyping the Hyperloop
Today we finally learned the details of Elon Musk’s much-hyped Hyperloop. And while some readers may expect me to trash it, I actually think it’s a pretty awesome idea. What’s not to love about getting from SF to LA in 30 minutes? Sign me up!
The Hyperloop does have some significant technical challenges facing it, but so does any ambitious idea. It’s also not a new idea. Proposals like it, usually known as a vactrain, have circulated for the last 100 years. Yet there are significant problems with the Hyperloop – specifically with the way it’s being discussed and framed. Many of the same media outlets that have spent the last five years criticizing every detail of the California high speed rail project have today been reporting on the Hyperloop concept without the same levels of skepticism that they’ve brought to HSR – even though HSR is a commonplace, proven technology whereas the Hyperloop is a concept on paper.
Part of the challenge is that Elon Musk himself has set up the Hyperloop in opposition to the California HSR project. That either/or frame is set up at the very beginning of his proposal:
When the California “high speed” rail was approved, I was quite disappointed, as I know many others were too. How could it be that the home of Silicon Valley and JPL – doing incredible things like indexing all the world’s knowledge and putting rovers on Mars – would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world? Note, I am hedging my statement slightly by saying “one of”. The head of the California high speed rail project called me to complain that it wasn’t the very slowest bullet train nor the very most expensive per mile.
The underlying motive for a statewide mass transit system is a good one. It would be great to have an alternative to flying or driving, but obviously only if it is actually better than flying or driving. The train in question would be both slower, more expensive to operate (if unsubsidized) and less safe by two orders of magnitude than flying, so why would anyone use it?
If we are to make a massive investment in a new transportation system, then
the return should by rights be equally massive. Compared to the alternatives, it
should ideally be:
• Lower cost
• More convenient
• Immune to weather
• Sustainably self-powering
• Resistant to Earthquakes
• Not disruptive to those along the route
There are so many problems here that I literally do not know where to begin. But I’ll start with what to me is the most egregious claim, that HSR is somehow less safe than flying.
The Aircraft Crashes Record Office estimates there were 794 deaths in 2012 alone from flying. That was the lowest number since 2004, and the intervening years saw an average of about 1,000 deaths per year.
High speed rail, however, has an exceptional safety record. Last month’s crash in Spain killed 77 people. The Wenzhou crash in China in 2011 killed 40. The Eschede disaster killed 101 people in 1998. And that’s it. I have no clue where Musk got the claim that HSR is less safe than flying but it is totally false.
His other claims here are equally flawed. HSR has operated safely in Japan, an earthquake prone country, for 50 years. It isn’t immune to weather but it would also have no problem operating in any of the weather situations California regularly faces. Because of the need for a lot of curves – especially if he wants to stick to state-owned right of way – Musk will struggle to get the speeds he wants, eroding the advantage he seeks over flying.
But it’s two claims in particular that Musk is getting attention for that deserve really close scrutiny: disruption and cost. Musk seems to side with those who have attacked the HSR project for its impact on land, including farmland:
The key advantages of a tube vs. a railway track are that it can be built above the ground on pylons and it can be built in prefabricated sections that are dropped in place and joined with an orbital seam welder. By building it on pylons, you can almost entirely avoid the need to buy land by following alongside the mostly very straight California Interstate 5 highway, with only minor deviations when the highway makes a sharp turn.
Of course, you’d still need to get Caltrans to sell its own right of way alongside or in the middle of Interstate 5, which is not going to be easy or free. And Musk is downplaying the challenge here when he points to I-5. Building in the Central Valley is the easy and (relatively) cheap part, including land acquisition, whether it’s a bullet train or a Hyperloop. How exactly is Musk going to get these tubes from the Valley to downtown SF and downtown LA without causing disruption?
In the coastal urban centers, Musk will face exactly the same problem that HSR faced on the Peninsula: neighbors will not support an above-ground transportation infrastructure. And it’s a lot more difficult to claim you’ll just use freeway right-of-way, since the overpasses and other nearby structures are a much greater constraint on an aerial structure. It will also make it very difficult for the tubes to remain straight, requiring the pods to be slowed to a point where you lose your time savings from SF to LA. Again, this is the same problem facing HSR. Musk will also face the same CEQA and NEPA challenges that HSR faces.
So it’s extremely unlikely that the Hyperloop can be built without raising objections and attacks from some neighbors along the route. After all, many HSR advocates assumed that they would have an easy time getting approvals to build the tracks – until 2009, when the project became real and opposition did as well.
HSR advocates also assumed that the project could be built cheaply. The estimate used for the project when it went before California voters in 2008 was $33 billion. At the time I said that the cost could well rise above that, and it did so. We’ve seen estimates from $45 billion to $98 billion and now the estimate is $68 billion or so. Musk suggests that land acquisition is a big part of the cost, but that actually isn’t it. The challenge comes when you do the detailed engineering to determine how much it will cost you to build the steel and concrete guideways, whether they’re tracks or tubes, to get from SF to LA. It’s at that point that you usually realize your rosy cost assumptions made on paper aren’t going to hold now that you are faced with reality.
Over at the Washington Post’s Wonkblog Brad Plumer gets it right when he says a Hyperloop might be far more expensive than Musk thinks:
As Alexis Madrigal points out, Musk’s proposal seems to assume it’s possible to buy up tens of thousands of acres in California for a mere $1 billion. That’s awfully optimistic….
It’s worth noting that overruns aren’t unique to California’s high-speed rail. Large infrastructure projects almost always cost far more than initial projections suggest. One Danish study (pdf) by Bent Flyvbjerg, Mette Holm and Soren Buhl looked at 250 major infrastructure projects dating back to the 1920s and found that roughly 90 percent of them went over budget — by an average of about 45 percent.
I have a really hard time seeing how the Hyperloop would be immune from these pressures. Especially when, unlike HSR, it is brand-new and unproven technology. HSR is off-the-shelf tech and has been successfully constructed and operated in countries across the globe. The Hyperloop would be a brand-new thing. Usually when you build something brand new, your costs are going to be higher than if you just built something that already existed elsewhere. That is going to be amplified dramatically if you are looking at connecting SF to LA with a series of tubes.
Again, that’s not to say the Hyperloop shouldn’t be explored or even built. I didn’t like it when critics attacked HSR merely because it was new to California and I won’t attack the Hyperloop, even if its cost assumptions are not realistic. But the Hyperloop is being touted as a substitute for HSR. And by Musk’s own ridership projections, it’s nothing of the sort:
In this study, the initial route, preliminary design, and logistics of the Hyperloop transportation system have been derived. The system consists of capsules that travel between Los Angeles, California and San Francisco, California. The total trip time is approximately half an hour, with capsules departing as often as every 30 seconds from each terminal and carrying 28 people each. This gives a total of 7.4 million people each way that can be transported each year on Hyperloop. The total cost of Hyperloop in this analysis is under $6 billion USD. Amortizing this capital cost over 20 years and adding daily operational costs gives a total of about $20 USD (in current year dollars) plus operating costs per one-way ticket on the passenger Hyperloop.
Putting aside the fact that there’s no way you can build this for $6 billion and have a $20 ticket, the bigger issue is that this is no solution to the state’s transportation needs. 7.4 million people per year is fine. But the HSR system will carry as many as 117 million people per year. That’s an enormous difference. As California grows and as the price of oil soars, California needs a transportation system that can move not just a few million a year, but hundreds of millions a year. HSR can do that. The Hyperloop can’t. The Hyperloop also bypasses Silicon Valley and the cities of the Central Valley, despite the economic and environmental need especially in the Central Valley for a sustainable passenger rail option.
So far, Musk has said that he isn’t going to actually build the Hyperloop – he’s got a very successful day job, after all. That’s fine, it’s always good to have people developing new ideas for us to consider and aspire to build.
Yet we still face an energy and a transportation crisis in this country – as well as a climate crisis. Solutions are needed that will serve more than just 7 million people a year.
At the outset of his technical paper, Musk said that he was disappointed that California wasn’t proposing a cutting-edge technology. He is coming at this from the perspective of an inventor, believing that the key challenge to solve is one of engineering and design.
I would suggest that the real challenge we face in this country is not one of engineering or design, but of politics and resources. We need technical inventors, absolutely. But we also need people and ideas that can help us solve the broader problems we face as a civilization. How do we move beyond an oil-based transportation system that is causing repeated recessions, burning up our planet, and congesting our cities and our lungs? How do we overcome resistance to those solutions? Solving that requires politics as much as it requires design.
To me, high speed rail is just as revolutionary a solution to those problems as the Hyperloop is to the question of how to get from SF to LA the fastest. HSR gets at the oil problem, gets at the energy problem, gets at the climate problem, and gets at the transportation problem more quickly and more effectively than any other transportation infrastructure solution out there. It is also proving effective at overcoming many, though not all, of the obstacles being thrown in its path – obstacles that will absolutely be thrown in the Hyperloop’s path as well.
If the Hyperloop is ever going to be built, it will have to overcome the political bias against inconveniencing neighbors and spending huge sums of money on major infrastructure. HSR is slowly but surely making headway on solving those problems, in part because it is something that can serve a lot of people quickly.
Elon Musk is rightly regarded as one of the leading intellects and entrepreneurs of 21st century California. But we also need people who can find political solutions, just as we need the smart people who can imagine the design and technical solutions. I don’t know that the good folks working on the HSR project are heroes. They’ll never be touted as Great Men or Great Women. But they are doing as much to solve California’s problems as the inventors are, and they deserve credit for it too.
UPDATE: Stop and Move makes more good points about the flaws of the Hyperloop and wonders if it’s a “bad joke or an attempt to sabotage the California HSR project.” I don’t know if Elon Musk is intending to sabotage HSR. But I do think that a lot of the fawning media coverage is fueled by an existing anti-rail bias.